Funny business: the novelist Miriam Toews. Photo: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty
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Funny, defiant and furious: the tangled tale of two sisters

In Miram Toews’s new novel, the ability of literature to act as an antidote to despair is tested to the limit.

All My Puny Sorrows 
Miriam Toews
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £12.99

The Girls from Corona del Mar 
Rufi Thorpe
Hutchinson, 256pp, £14.99

“It was my father and my sister who constantly beseeched my mother and me to read more, to find succour for life in books, to soothe our aches and pains with words and more words,” remarks Yolandi (Yoli) Von Riesen, the narrator of Miriam Toews’s new novel, in which the ability of literature to act as an antidote to despair is tested to the limit.

Among the astonishing quantity of books referenced in this most bookish of fictions is Richard Holmes’s memoir Footsteps, which Yoli reads “as though somewhere in its pages are contained the directions to hell’s only exit”. The passage that particularly catches her attention is Holmes’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft: “There was something, I suppose, like a wild waterfall in the headlong, broken, plunging quality of Mary’s life.”

The description applies with eerie exactness to Yolandi’s beloved elder sister, Elfrieda, who is brilliant, beautiful and broken. Alas, it doesn’t help solve Yolandi’s urgent dilemma: how to answer Elfrieda’s request that Yoli accompany her to Switzerland, where she intends to end her life.

Suicide has become for Elfrieda a desire as compelling as the passion for music that drove her as a rebellious teenager to flee the chilly disapproval of her small Canadian Mennonite community and seek a career as a concert pianist. Now in her forties, she is a celebrity with an international career, a devoted manager and a family that is as determined to prevent her from dying as she is to succeed.

If you were to compare the sisters’ circumstances, it would be Yolandi rather than Elfrieda who might seem the more likely to succumb to depression. By contrast with Elfrieda’s elegant trajectory to private and public success, Yolandi’s life has been a muddled affair. She is large and freckled, rather than small and exquisite. Her eyelashes, unlike Elfrieda’s, are not so long that snow settles on them in winter. She is the author of a not-very-successful series of young adult novels. She has a teenage son, Will, and daughter, Nora, from two failed marriages.

What time she can spare from the exacting process of thwarting Elfrieda’s repeated suicide attempts is spent in a series of unsatisfactory love affairs. It is a life punctuated by small failures; yet through Yoli’s character runs a streak of resilient, mocking optimism that acts as a counter-charm against the urge to self-annihilation that is an ingrained family trait.

Suicide runs in the Von Riesen family. Various cousins took their own lives and Elfrieda’s and Yoli’s father, an idealistic primary school teacher, killed himself by kneeling in front of a train. These are not imagined events. In her previous novels and in an award-winning memoir of her father, Swing Low, Toews has described her childhood in a Canadian Mennonite community and her father’s suicide. Her elder sister, Marj, killed herself in 2010, having asked Miriam to help end her life.

“For me, writing is an act of survival,” Toews has said. Her novel – funny, defiant and, when it comes to the heroic in­difference of the medical staff charged with Elfrieda’s care, furious – is an unsparing anatomy of the battle between the will to live and the will to die. Elfrieda’s musical talent apparently has no power to attach her to life – on the contrary, it seems to enhance her sense of fragility (she shares with King Ludwig I’s daughter Princess Alexandra of Bavaria the conviction that she has a glass piano inside her that may break at any moment). But words represent a “mixed message of hope, reverence, defiance and eternal aloneness”. As a teenager, Elfrieda planned to scrawl “AMP”, representing the words “all my puny sorrows”, a phrase from a poem by Coleridge, on landmarks across town as an act of defiant individualism. Her penultimate act is to ask her husband to fetch her some books from the library. “Books,” thinks Yoli, “are what save us. Books are what don’t save us.”

The theme of salvation by narrative haunts Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, a coming-of-age fiction that explores the unequal contest between human will and indifferent fate. Mia and Lorrie Ann are teenagers growing up in the 1990s in the Californian coastal hamlet of Corona del Mar. As the novel begins, Mia seems to be heading for a crash. She is 15 years old and recovering from an abortion, having lost her virginity and become pregnant in the same moment.

Lorrie Ann, by contrast, has all the virtues of a fairy-tale heroine. She is beautiful, clever, nice and – almost unprecedentedly in Corona del Mar – the child of a stable family. “In a way,” Mia reflects, “Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was . . .”

It is the destiny of fairy-tale heroines to suffer and there is something gleeful about the way in which Thorpe sets about heaping misfortune on Lorrie Ann. “It was,” Mia thinks, “like some bizarre postmodern rendition of Job.” From an unplanned pregnancy, which Lorrie Ann virtuously declines to terminate, there extends a grim sequence of catastrophe. While Mia flourishes, her friend suffers a series of lurid mishaps as elaborate and undeserved as the fanciful horrors of 17th-century revenge tragedy.

As in all good fairy tales, there is a slightly improbable ending that offers the possibility, if not of happiness ever after, at least of respite from misfortune. There are signs in Thorpe’s novel of a writer finding her voice: the binary structure is a trifle heavy-handed and the conclusion simplistic. Yet her depiction of female friendship is engaging and sharply observed. Seldom has Schadenfreude been more appetisingly packaged. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.